Unlike most states considering changes to their laws governing raw milk, Wisconsin’s $26 billion dairy industry has some real “skin in the game.”

A Wisconsin Senate committee has advanced a bill that would for the first time since 1955 allow direct sales of raw milk to consumers, but only by sellers with permits that conduct testing and provide warning labels on the product.

raw-milk7-featured.jpgBut it is far from a done deal.  It is a deal that has the more populist Wisconsin Farmers Union pitted against the larger Wisconsin Farm Bureau.  The deal may fall under the weight of the state’s pasteurized dairy industry.

“People continue to get sick and continue to die. When one of these issues happens, a negative light shines on the entire industry,” the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association’s Tim Griswold says.

Raw milk advocates in Wisconsin wanted to not only make it legal for dairy farms to sell unpasteurized milk to the public, but also to release farmers from liability if their raw product makes people sick.

Wisconsin lawmakers appear to have backed off the pass on liability, but the direct sale to consumers bill remains very much alive.

“There’s an inherent issue of personal rights in this matter,” says Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden.  “If someone wants to consume raw milk, that person should be allowed to do so at their own risk–or, if you listen to another side of research, to their own benefit.”

Von Ruden compares unpasteurized milk to sushi, steak tartar, and raw clams on the half shell–all products that may be served raw.  Von Ruden is an organic dairy farmer from Westby who says Wisconsin should not allow “fear of the processing industry” to stand in the way.

Melvin Pittman, who chairs the dairy committee for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, advised lawmakers to move carefully with concern “for our $26 billion dairy industry.”

Wisconsin’s entire image for safe dairy products could be damaged by raw milk contamination making people sick, Pittman says.  A dairy farmer himself at Plum City, Pittman says Wisconsin farmers have invested millions in the industry and that should not be put at risk by incidents of raw milk illnesses.

Before the raw milk bills began flying in the Wisconsin Legislature, the state had named a “working group” to study the raw milk issue.   “Cow share” and “farm share” practices that some raw milk dairies use have come under scrutiny by local prosecutors.

But for now, all focus is on what Wisconsin’s lawmakers do.

The powerful Cooperative Network, which represents 600 member-cooperatives in both Wisconsin and Minnesota, has also weighed in against making raw milk sales legal.

“We don’t want to see that industry suffer in the event of an illness outbreak caused by raw milk,” said David Ward, dairy director for the Cooperative Network.

The Wisconsin Division of Public Health reports its has investigated four outbreaks linked to raw milk or raw milk products in the last decade.  At least 131 people were sickened.